Our Power, Their Pain — How The Thirst For Energy Threatens An Indigenous People's Way Of Life

Dec 6, 2019

“It was very modest,” said Charlotte Wolfrey. “A one room place. The walls were insulated with grown moss between the logs.” Wolfrey, an Inuk woman, is describing the cabin of her birth.

This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

This is part one of a two-part series. To read part two, click here.

Sitting on a comfortable couch and sipping bottled water, she gestures vaguely to the coastal Labradorian waters that define Rigolet, an isolated community of 300 Inuit. 

Though Rigolet is far away from Maine — 1,200 miles northeast of Augusta — Wolfrey says that energy policy decisions in New England are setting off a chain of reactions that reach all the way to the waters of Lake Melville, which have nurtured the people of Rigolet for thousands of years. 

Wolfrey would like New Englanders who are considering supporting the Canadian hydropower industry to know that every time they flick on a light switch, there are consequences at the other end of the supply chain.

“I think they should become informed and realize that it’s not all good.”

Credit Michael Seamans / PULITZER CENTER ON CRISIS REPORTING

Wolfrey was born across the bay from Rigolet, in an area known as John’s Point. After making sure that Charlotte and her mother were safe, the local midwife left the cabin, headed on a three-day dogsled trip home. 

It would have been a much shorter journey across the bay, but Rigolet lies where Lake Melville drains Labrador’s largest watershed into the salty Atlantic Ocean; ocean swells and salinity prevent the winter ice from ever freezing enough for safe surface travel. Even today, Rigolet is only accessible by airplane and boat. 

Wolfrey had a tumultuous childhood, typical of the mid-1900s era in which Indigenous people were being forced to transition to a European lifestyle — permanent residences, a wage economy, Western health care and institutional schooling. She grew up in one of thousands of Indigenous families that were separated by the government, in the name of giving children a better chance to thrive by Western standards. Her mother’s time in a residential institution drove a wedge between her and her native community; at different times, Wolfrey lived in the household of her older sister, and in the girls dormitory of a residential school, but she eventually ran away to rejoin her mother, who struggled to parent her.

Wolfrey had her own struggles as a young mother, beginning when she had her first son at 16.

“Our life wasn’t all that good,” she said. “And anyway I did the best I could with what I had. I didn’t know how to be a good mom.”

But Wolfrey eventually found stability in the southernmost Inuit community in the world — Rigolet, where she has lived for most of her life with her husband, David Wolfrey. 

Credit Michael Seamans / PULITZER CENTER ON CRISIS REPORTING

Located just a few miles from tundra and polar bears, Rigolet is a tight-knit community where Indigenous residents can nurture their heritage, without abandoning the progress made by Canada as a whole. At the Northern Lights Academy, which overlooks a snug bay that hosts minke whales and cargo ships, students learn Inuktitut and life skills from Indigenous teachers. Able-bodied Inuit maintain long-standing cultural traditions by stocking a community freezer with cuts of fish, moose and seal meat for those who are no longer up to the rigors of the hunt. 

The region won autonomy in 2005, with the creation of the independent Nunatsiavut Government, which represents five Inuit communities, including Rigolet. 

As the Inuit have worked to overcome their challenges as a people, Wolfrey has overcome her rocky youth to become an Inuit elder. In 2010, she was elected as Rigolet’s AngajukKak — an position that acts both as mayor, and as representative to the Nunatsiavut Government assembly. 

Land Threatened

In early 2017, after a diagnosis of cancer in her larynx, Wolfrey had treatments that included the removal of her salivary glands, and radiation therapy on her throat. For months, she could barely speak, and even now, her vocal range fluctuates between a whisper, and a rasp. 

She takes frequent swigs of her water bottle to irrigate her mouth; when her throat feels raw, she uses a traditional Inuit cutting tool — an ulu — to cut slivers from a chunk of raw, frozen meat, relishing the cooling sensation as they slide down her esophagus.

Credit Michael Seamans / PULITZER CENTER ON CRISIS REPORTING

“I eat raw,” she said. “I’ll eat frozen char and salmon and caribou. I can eat raw seal, but I don’t much, because my husband don’t like it, but I used to do a lot when I was young.”

Wolfrey’s affinity for seal, in particular, is nearly ubiquitous in Rigolet.

“If it wasn’t for seal meat, there wouldn’t be a person in Rigolet alive,” she said. “We wouldn’t have survived. They kept us alive by feeding us. They kept us alive by using their fur for our tents. They kept our dogs alive by using the meat and the fat. It’s who we are. To me, seal is who we are. It’s what made us.”

As recently as her grandparents generation, an Inuk hunter might plunge his hands into a fresh kill, to keep his fingers nimble in the subarctic cold, or drink seal blood to stay warm.

The relationship between Inuit and seals has evolved over thousands of years. Nutrition scientists continue to make discoveries that find the particular ways Inuit store and consume seal meat unlock greater nutritional benefits, allowing them to access carbohydrates and vitamins A, C and D, all of which are otherwise difficult to come by on the tundra. 

Wolfrey says that she, and other Inuit, get deep cravings, even if they have adequate supplies of other sorts of food. 

“If we don’t eat seal meat, we’re hungry. I don’t know how to explain it. Nothing can satisfy you,” she said. “You gotta have seal. That’s our soul food.”

In early November, most of Wolfrey’s time as AngajukKak is spent fielding complaints about the quality of the snow-covered roads connecting the town’s 60 or so houses — those who walk or ride ATVs want it to be sanded for better traction, while snowmobilers prefer it unsanded. 

Credit Michael Seamans / PULITZER CENTER ON CRISIS REPORTING

But in 2011, Wolfrey’s energies were consumed by a much more serious problem on the horizon: A proposal by Nalcor, a company owned by the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, to build a hydroelectric dam in the upper reaches of the Lake Melville watershed. 

The $12.7 billion project, Muskrat Falls, dammed the Churchill River in August 2019, and is expected to begin generating 824 megawatts of electricity next year. The dam will send most of its power east, toward Newfoundland, but it will also be connected to a grid infrastructure that supplies New England’s renewable energy needs.

Wolfrey, and others in the region, fear that the dam will contaminate their seal meat and other local food supplies with methylmercury, a toxin that can cause severe neurological damage to humans. 

In forested areas, like those that line the Churchill River, naturally occurring mercury is locked up in the organic matter that makes up the vegetation and soil. But when an area is flooded, as in the building of a reservoir, some of the mercury is taken up by bacteria and transformed into methylmercury. The toxin, which United States consumers might be familiar with as the source of tuna consumption advisories, makes its way up the food chain, and into the fish and seals that the Inuit rely upon for food.

Scientists who have studied the potential impacts of Muskrat Falls have come up with very different predictions; Nalcor, drawing on research that it has commissioned, says the effect will be negligible, and the company is monitoring methylmercury levels in the environment so that, if needed, public advisories about fish consumption can be tweaked. 

Credit Michael Seamans / PULITZER CENTER ON CRISIS REPORTING

“Our prediction is that there won’t be any changes,” said Karen O’Neill, a Nalcor spokesperson. “We project people will be able to continue with country foods without an impact. There could be some fish species that the guidelines could change. But we haven’t seen that yet.”

Dr. Michel Plante, a medical consultant for Hydro-Quebec (which currently exports electricity from Quebec to New England), said that decades of research on the relationship between reservoirs and indigenous populations in Quebec have shown that the concerns about human health impacts in Labrador are overestimated by the Harvard researchers.

“If you read the study by Harvard, it’s really alarmist,” he said.

Plante said that previous models by other universities have shown a dramatic gap between predicted, and actual, mercury levels in heavy consumers of fish.

“We found a fivefold difference,” he said. Part of the reason, Plante said, is that models assume that all of the mercury that is consumed is retained by the body, but that in fact, roughly half of it is not absorbed, and passes harmlessly through the system.

Plante said the perceptions of contaminated fish can be more harmful to public health than the mercury.

“We want people to eat more fish,” he said, “because of all of the health benefits that eating fish provides.”But Wolfrey says she expects the mercury levels will have a devastating impact in Rigolet, where grocery prices are dramatically higher than in more accessible locations, and wild-caught food is often the community’s only bulwark against rampant food insecurity. 

Political Unrest

As Muskrat Falls inched closer to becoming a reality, there were widespread demonstrations by the Inuit of Rigolet, as well as by Indigenous, and non-Indigenous residents of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a community sited where the Churchill River flows into Lake Melville.

In late 2016, around the same time as the cancer diagnosis, Wolfrey and eight other demonstrators were arrested for trespassing on the Muskrat Falls site, and establishing a blockade of Nalcor construction vehicles. 

Credit Michael Seamans / PULITZER CENTER ON CRISIS REPORTING

The protests did have an effect on the project; the Canadian government formed an independent advisory committee to come up with a series of recommendations designed to mitigate the potential environmental impacts on the Inuit watershed. 

The committee, which included Wolfrey’s husband, David Wolfrey, recommended that Nalcor undertake a vegetation removal and wetland capping program to mitigate the effects of the mercury poisoning.

Those recommendations were informed in part by the Harvard studies, which indicated that doing so would significantly reduce the amount of methylmercury in the local ecosystem.

Though the recommendation was accepted by the government, for reasons that are unclear, the wetland was never capped. A month before the flooding, officials said that there was no longer enough time to institute the program, and the flooding was allowed to proceed. 

Nalcor offered the Nunatsiavut Government $10 million in compensation, but the Inuit representatives refused the offer, and have instead called for an investigation into why the capping didn’t take place. The investigation is ongoing.

As Wolfrey’s criminal case wound its way through the Canadian court system, Wolfrey said that her grandchildren, who she had always told to obey the law, asked her what she had done wrong. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“I didn’t know how to answer them,” she told a local television reporter.

In early 2017, when a courtroom judge asked her if she understood the charges against her, she had a better answer ready.

“I guess I do. I mean, they’re Canada’s laws,” she said. “But ... there’s another ultimate law that as an Indigenous person, and as an Inuk, that’s our responsibility And that law is to protect the land and the water and everything that sustains you and moves you forward for the next generation to enjoy.”

Despite her moral stance, Wolfrey was prepared to plead guilty to the charges. She wanted her record to be cleared in time for an important event on the horizon — though she had never been to the United States, she had been invited to New York City, along with a group of Inuit youth, to address the United Nations on issues of importance to Indigenous people.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and Wolfrey intended to take full advantage.

This series was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. For more, visit mainepublic.org.